Dancing with art

This could be a Pygmalion moment.

Forget about the legendary myth of how the Cypriot goldsmith fell in love with his sculpture of a beautiful woman and concentrate on how the goddess Venus magically zapped life into her.

Not many sculptors — if any — can say they’ve witnessed this in their own work.

But now Jimmie Nord can.

Because he watched at this moment as figures danced around and atop the bright pieces he’s put together. Of course, he doesn’t claim these pieces as his own; they’re all Peter Shire’s designs.

Nord was the sculpture student in the LSU School of Art who was chosen to put the pieces together, and now they’ve come to life through the magic of Of Moving Colors in the LSU Design Building’s Atrium.

It’s where the contemporary dance-theater company rehearses for its season finale, P.S. 425, a collaboration between the LSU School of Art and Shire, whose work has been on exhibit since February in the LSU Museum of Art.

The performance is set for 7:30 p.m. Thursday, April 25, in the Manship Theatre, and will feature a program specifically choreographed around the set pieces Shire created for the show.

And those who may have difficulty remembering the performance date simply can refer back to its title.

P.S. 425.

“It’s a combination of Peter’s initials and the date of the performance,” Garland Goodwin Wilson said. “We were throwing around ideas for titles, and we decided that this title was the best. It said everything about the performance.”

Wilson is the dance company’s artistic director, as well as director of this show. The company moved its rehearsals from Powell Moise School of Dance to the LSU Design Building leading to the performance, because the room is home to Shire’s sets.

Again, sets built by Nord.

And Nord sat on the side, watching as the wooden pieces came to life. It’s magical in its own way, enough to capture the daily attention of passing art students.

“It’s been great for students in the School of Art,” Kitty Pheney said. “They can’t help stopping and watching the rehearsals. It’s been fun for everyone to watch the dancers rehearse with these big, colorful pieces.”

Pheney is the School of Art’s director of new initiatives. She also is president of the dance company’s board of directors, and she’s right.

The pieces are big. And colorful.

They’re also fun.

Anyone who has visited the exhibit, Practically Absurd: Art & Design by Peter Shire, at the LSU Museum of Art or the coinciding exhibits at the LSU School of Art’s Alfred C. Glassell Jr. Exhibition Gallery and the LSU Student Union Gallery earlier in the year, easily will recognize his work.

The exhibits combined to create a three-level collaborative retrospective of Shire’s work. Shire is known worldwide for his designs and sculptures, probably his best-known piece being the “Bel Air Chair,” which is included in the museum’s exhibit.

The chair became an iconic symbol of the Memphis Group, an Italian design and architecture group that designed Post Modern furniture, fabrics, ceramics, glass and metal objects from 1981 to 1987.

Shire revolutionized the design of household objects, striving to confront issues of modernity while examining the practical needs of society.

So, the “Bel Air Chair,” which takes its inspiration from the beach and ocean waves that are so much a part of Los Angeles, where Shire maintains his Echo Park Pottery Studios, is what he would call “furniture sculpture.” That is, as opposed to what he would call “sculpture sculpture.” And the sets he’s designed for P.S. 425 are reminiscent of his furniture sculpture, as well as Shire’s beloved beach.

Then again, Shire doesn’t need a beach to generate inspiration. He’s been surrounded by Louisiana style inspiration during the spring semester while working as the LSU School of Art’s artist-in-residence. Shire has made several trips from Los Angeles to Baton Rouge to work with art students. Those who have communicated with him are quick to point out that he really doesn’t spend much time talking about his work.

He’s too busy looking at the world around him.

“He talked about building an Indian mound,” Pheney said.

It’s true. Shire, in an earlier interview with The Advocate, spoke about his fascination with the Indian Mounds that stand in the center of the LSU’s campus. The mounds made him start thinking about what was inside, which then made him think about objects that might be found in a modern day mound.

This led to the idea of rounding up LSU art students to help him build his version of a mound.

“I’m thinking about building them with sliding glass doors where you can look in and see what’s inside,” Shire said at the time. “The glass door will be a portal, and the point is to see what’s in there. And maybe we can get the landscape architecture students involved. Maybe they could design the outside during their classes.”

He even suggested a few LSU-related pieces that could be included in the mounds, but the art department officials automatically nixed some of those suggestions.

“He wanted to put the Mike the Tiger on display inside Foster Hall in the mound,” Pheney said, laughing. “It was just one of those ideas that he kept talking about, but we were never able to do that project. And we told him that it wouldn’t be a good idea to use Mike.”

Still, it’s an example of how Shire sees the world, a perspective of which Nord received a double dose.

Nord is in his second year of the LSU School of Arts master of fine arts program. His concentration is in sculpture, and he has a background in woodworking and construction.

Nord came to LSU from northern California.

“I visited the campus and fell in love with it,” he said. “And since I’ve come to LSU, I’ve been working with a lot of wood and spending a lot of time in the wood shop.”

“He was chosen for this project because of his high technical skill,” Pheney added.

Working with Shire meant more than studio time. Sometimes it was a shopping trip to buy striped shirts at The Gap; other times sightseeing took precedence over all else.

And Shire constantly had his camera in hand.

“I spent a lot of time with him off campus,” Nord said. “If he saw something interesting, he’d take a picture of it. That’s how I operate, too. I take pictures of interesting things on buildings.”

But Nord later noticed that he was beginning to see the world as Shire sees it. Small things that previously went unnoticed now jump out at him. Shire has a way of seeing it, magnifying it and making it special.

Just as he’s done with the set for P.S. 425, which consists of catwalks, whimsical chairs, thrones, wheel barrow-type movable sculptures and a large iron partition.

“Peter and I talked about chairs and how people are connected to them,” Wilson said. “You sit in a chair, you talk in a chair, there’s an entire dance we have built around folding laundry in a chair. A lot of our lives are spent in chairs, and these objects become personal to us. We have this connection to them.”

“The individual chairs make a group and are about western emphasis on originality and individual experience,” Shire explained in Of Moving Colors’ news release for the performance. “It becomes the narrative of the collective — grounded in ancestry, morality and the recurrent forces of everyday existence.”

For Nord, though, the pieces are the result of his work with a world renowned sculptor.

“Peter drew out the designs to scale,” Nord said. “He also chose the colors. He had conversations with Garland and came up with three different designs.”

They settled on the set of chairs. Four super-sized chairs will be arranged on stage, while smaller ones will make up a backdrop. An extra chair will be located in the lobby, giving audience members a chance to get an up-close look at Shire’s design.

The chairs later will be made available for purchase. Those that don’t sell will be placed in prominent spots throughout the LSU School of Art’s locations.

And though viewers surely will connect with Shire’s work through their own chair experiences, there is another connection that needs mentioning here.

It’s Nord’s.

Again, he’s not the designer of these furniture sculptures, but he is the builder. He was with the pieces from the beginning. They’re not his, but the personal connection is strong. Which is why his face glows while watching Of Moving Colors’ troupe members become one with the set pieces through their choreographed moves. This marks the first time the company has collaborated with the LSU School of Art, and it’s happening on pieces built by Nord, pieces suddenly alive with movement.

Pygmalion is probably history’s only sculptor with such a story, but he lived only in myth.

Nord’s story is happening here, and it’s better than magic. Because it’s real.

DANCERS: Amanda Arostegui, Kristen Ballard, Muriel Capdepon, Alyseia Darby, Marlon Grigsby, Courtney Landry, Maria McCain, Rebekah Prudhomme, Rebecca Sawyer, Carrie Tatum (associate director for OMC), Harlee Trautman, Jorge Santana (guest)

CHOREOGRAPHERS: Courtney Landry, Garland Goodwin Wilson

SCULPTOR: Peter Shire

FABRICATOR: Jimmie Nord

A MUSICAL RANGE: David Bowie’s “This is Not America,” performed by the Ahn Trio to the original version of “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)” by the Eurythmics

ALL MUSIC: Múm, Drehz, Perez Prado, Los Straitjackets, David Bowie and the Ahn Trio, Blue Sky Black Death, Hungry Ghosts, BitterSweet, Ólafur Arnalds, Francoise Hardy, Riot Act and Willis